Green Interior Design Tips

living room with brick walls, a grey couch and a cartographer's map of Africa on the wall
Source: Justin Schuler, Unsplash

Winter brings short days and cooler temperatures, and if you’re like this writer, you’re finding yourself spending more time indoors. Are you looking around at your living room or bedroom and wishing for a change?

Your home is where you socialize, relax, cook, raise your children, and sometimes work—so you want it to be inviting and nurturing. If it isn’t the way you want it to be, you don’t have to be a professional designer, or a millionaire, or use a ton of resources to make your rooms look like a million bucks. We talked to some experts specializing in green interior design to learn their favorite tricks for making an old space feel new without breaking the bank. If you’re itching for a change in your home this winter, follow these tips to create a space that rejuvenates your spirit and is healthy for your family.

Remake Your Space With Color

Perhaps the easiest way to make a big change in a room is to bring in some color by painting one or more of the walls. Think about the purpose of a room when choosing a color, says Norma Lehmeier Hartie, owner of design firm Harmonious Environment and author of Harmonious Environment: Beautify, Detoxify & Energize Your Life, Your Home & Your Planet (Lingham Press, 2007). Warm colors, like reds and yellows, are stimulating and therefore good for social rooms. Cooler colors, like blues and greens, are best for calming spaces, like the bedroom.

Most traditional paints are heavy in volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a class of chemicals that may cause health problems ranging from dizziness to nerve damage. In addition, they may contain toxic fungicides (to prevent mildew) and biocides, as well as chemical pigments for color.

Fortunately, there are several brands of less-toxic paint that our green designers recommend to their clients. They suggest looking for nontoxic, natural paints, which are often made from milk protein (called “casein”) or clay, and come in a wide array of colors.

Our designers love AFM Safecoat paint, which is zero-VOC, for its diversity—you’ll have to have a local store add pigments to achieve your desired color. For a completely natural paint with pigments included, try those from Auro USA . For others, see the “Paints” category of our National Green Pages™.

Rethinking Your Flooring

Many of the designers we spoke to said they recommend ripping out wall-to-wall carpets as an important step toward making a healthy and beautiful home. While the wall-to-wall carpets in many homes look soft and inviting, they’re notorious for harboring allergens and trapping toxins like pesticides that get tracked in from outside, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI). Most synthetic carpets also contain VOCs.

If you can’t afford to replace your carpeting, you can spray on a product like AFM’s carpet sealer (which does not contain dangerous chemicals) to seal in offgassing toxins that are a particular problem with newer carpets. Vacuum weekly with a HEPA vacuum to pick up allergens.

But if you’re able, consider replacing your wall-to-wall carpet with a sustainable hard floor made of responsibly harvested wood, reclaimed wood, renewable bamboo, or cork. Or, you can choose a low toxicity, 100 percent wool wall-to-wall carpet from a green company like Pure Home Center, which recommends its carpet for chemically sensitive customers.

For added softness and warmth, you can cover your floors with all-natural area rugs made from wool, hemp, or organic cotton, as rugs are easier to clean than wall-to-wall carpeting.

“Area rugs are fantastic because they define a particular space, but make sure they match the colors and textures in the rest of your room,” says Hartie.

For an array of eco-friendly flooring and rug options, see the “Flooring” and “Carpets/Rugs” categories of our National Green Pages™.


Work With What You've Got

Audrey Hoodkiss, owner of Ecology by Design, often amazes her clients without having to buy a thing.

“Creating a new room can be so easy,” she says. “It can be just about rearranging or revamping what you’ve got and seeing it from a new perspective.”

Simply rearranging existing furniture can have a profound effect on a room. Designers recommend that you consider how light and energy flow in a given space when rearranging, thinking about balance and functionality. If a room has an “off-kilter” feel to it, seek balance by mixing different sizes of furniture and making sure that most furniture isn’t all in one end of the room.

“An imbalanced room would have large pieces of furniture grouped together on one end and lightweight furniture and bare walls at the other,” says Hartie. “The effect would be like being on a tilting boat in a storm.”

Also, Hoodkiss recommends gathering furniture into “conversation groups” to make it easy for people to talk to one another. Green living expert and author Annie Bond adds that round tables are particularly welcoming for guests, because “everyone feels like they belong.”

Finally, consider whether there’s space for people to walk through comfortably. Look at common paths through the room, and make sure not to obstruct them.

“Don’t sacrifice a comfortable walking pattern for that large-scale, curly armed sofa,” advises Alison Pollack of Earth Friendly Interior Design .

  • If you’re tired of the colors or patterns on your furniture, consider refurbishing or covering them, rather than buying new items. For upholstered pieces, this could be more expensive than buying something new, but you’ll enjoy the satisfaction of saving resources by reusing what you have.

    Use low- or no-VOC finishes and paints for wood furniture, and make slipcovers and pillow covers from organic cotton or wool, hemp or hemp blends, or other upholstery-quality eco-fabrics, sold by companies like Aurora Silk. If sewing isn’t your thing, look in your local Yellow Pages for businesses that can custom-make slipcovers for you.
  • Use photos and paintings or prints to bring life into your room. If you don’t have many windows in your room, Hoodkiss recommends framing pictures of nature scenes or loved ones to help bring you peace and balance. Be your own artist and showcase some of your photos or artwork, or frame a section of your favorite fabric and hang it on the wall.

    When hanging your artwork, Pollack recommends paying attention to both filled and negative space.

    “Group your pictures in such a way as to contain the collection to one section of one wall, with one or two inches between the pieces,” she says. “With open space surrounding the grouping, the eye travels directly to what you want folks to see and allows your eye to rest at the same time, so you won’t be overwhelmed by ‘stuff.’”

    Scour your local thrift shop for used frames, or look for frames made from reclaimed materials, like those from Pallet Art, which turns old shipping pallets into frames and furniture.

Bring in Some Green

A great way to liven up your space and clean your indoor air is to decorate with plants. In addition to beautifying your room, plants actually clean your indoor air, according to a study by NASA and the Associated Landscape Contractors of America. Some of the plants the study cited as most effective in removing toxic formaldehyde, benzene, and carbon monoxide from the air were: bamboo palm, Chinese evergreen, English ivy, gerbera daisy, chrysanthemum, and peace lily.

However, “people with allergies and chemical sensitivities should keep potted plants out of the bedroom, because the soil often contains mold and allergens,” warns Hartie.

Being creative in potting your plants can add some color to your room. Reuse jars and containers to avoid buying pots and to give your room some added personality. When placing plants, think first of their lighting needs. Then, consider the same balance you sought through your furniture placement. Large plants work particularly well at filling up empty corners. Also consider putting together plant groupings. Pollack recommends clustering plants in a corner rather than scattering them throughout a room.

Plants are a wonderful way to bring a bit of nature in your home, but you don’t have to stop there. All of our designers agree that having natural elements in your home is key to creating a beautiful, healthy space. Collect some stones from one of your favorite trails and place them on a tabletop, or bring in some color with bouquets of flowers or clippings from your yard. If you love having fresh (ideally organic) flowers in your house, Hartie recommends fashioning vases from things you already have in your house, like pretty bottles or cans covered in fabric.

Shop Sustainably

When you find that it’s time to bring a new piece into your home, remember to go green. First, look for secondhand, new-to-you items that you can keep out of the waste-stream via local thrift shops, the newspaper, or online forums like Craigslist or If you can’t find something used, consult the “Furniture” category of our to find pieces made from sustainably harvested wood and eco-friendly upholstery that isn’t treated with toxic chemicals, such as flame retardants and stain-resistant sealants.

You can also find beautiful decorations for your home by purchasing items from members of the Fair Trade Federation. You can find Fair Trade baskets, statues, housewares, and more, and you’ll help guarantee a fair wage for artisans around the world. Check the “Fair Trade” category of our

But don’t get so excited by things that you clutter your home. “Keep the decorative items to a minimum. Too many pretty little things tend to go unappreciated,” advises Pollack. Pick a few special items and place them in small groupings in your room, giving the same thought to negative space as when placing items on a wall, she says.

Interior design can be intimidating, but don’t get overwhelmed by trying to turn your room into a showroom for the latest fashions.

“Design is really very intuitive,” says Hartie. “When most people just go with their instincts, they’ll make a room that is beautiful for them.”